jonasLuc Bondy’s Tosca returned to the Met on Wednesday night with an entirely new set of principals and conductor. The new trio of principal singers, all making local role debuts, could not redirect and redesign the production but they could allow their individual talents to outshine their surroundings.  

The Fall cast either seemed oblivious to the production (Marcelo Alvarez) or pushed into vocal and dramatic distortions (Karita Mattila) or simply made to look foolish (George Gagnidze). This triumvirate managed to put some Puccini and Sardou back into the opera by being true to their own talents.

Fabio Luisi favored spacious tempos as James Levine did in the Fall and Joseph Colaneri dutifully recreated. However, Luisi also maintained a firm sense of forward momentum and dramatic pacing. Levine seemed to be escaping into orchestral abstractions rather than face what was onstage.

So, down the nitty gritty. Act I seems to have been brightened up lighting wise and there is no water on the floor. David Pittsinger is strong as Angelotti and John Del Carlo has more voice than Plishka as the Sacristan. He is still kicked by Cavaradossi as he enters, so Bondy’s anti-clericalism is still in place.

The Cavaradossi is Jonas Kaufmann. Previously heard at the Met in lyric roles like Tamino and Alfredo, Kaufmann for the first time takes on a role requiring some spinto heft. There have been some insistent trolls on this site who swear that the German tenor’s voice is tiny and can’t be heard at the Met — and keep insisting despite eyewitness testimony to the contrary. I was in the balcony and Kaufmann was always, always entirely audible at all moments.

The baritonal center of the voice projects firmly and the top rings out. His cries of “Vittoria, Vittoria!” in Act II left one in no doubt that he will be able to project Siegmund’s “Wälse, Wälse!” with heroic force next year. He also was able to sing a long-held soft ending to “Recondita armonia” and had obviously listened to Corelli’s recording of “E lucevan le stelle” for his long-breathed handling of the phrase “le belle forme disciogliea dai veli!”

On the other hand Kaufmann’s tone is rather covered and placed far back in the throat (but open and not constricted). This makes for a dark, sometimes opaque tone that can lack light and shade. Unlike other baritonal tenors, he is not short on top and high climaxes were easy and secure. He was unable to lighten and caress certain phrases with a melting mezza-voce – “Qual occhio al mondo” in Act I and “O dolci mani” in Act III suffered from this.

His pianissimo seems to be achieved (successfully) as a special effect by shifting all the weight out of the tone rather than being floated on the core of tone maintaining an unbroken line. On the other hand the voice is thrillingly homogenous and secure and I needn’t mention emanating from a romantically youthful, slender and attractive frame. Nimble and athletic, Kaufmann proved an adroit actor reacting to Tosca’s tantrums in Act I with a novel air of genuine exasperation – one wondered how long this relationship would have lasted had fate not intervened.

The Floria here was another singer unveiling a new role for the Met, Patricia Racette. Like Kaufmann her Met repertory has centred on more lyric roles but her recent stint as all three heroines in Il trittico showed she has the stamina for heavier Puccini. Her Tosca was very much in the American full lyric tradition of Geraldine Farrar, Grace Moore and Dorothy Kirsten.

Not as Hollywood glamorous as the aforementioned ladies, Racette is a focused actress with a firm technical command of the role’s vocal pitfalls. Lacking the warm, darkly sensuous color and italianità of some of the classic Puccini sopranos, Racette’s sound is silky and womanly with enough bright cut and thrust for the more dramatic phrases.

Racette also has a firm high C and was unfazed by the outbursts in Act II. Racette had better control of pitch and line than Mattila whose high notes started to spread and go flat under pressure. In Act II, the American soprano elected to sing rather than declaim “Quanto” and “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma” – wise choices and effectively done. Racette can also summon chest tones in appropriate places but knows not to take them too high. Both tenor and soprano could always be heard over the orchestra even during the loudest passages.

What Racette may lack as of yet is a personal touch with Tosca’s music – she did not seek out any moments for special vocal styling (a la Renée) and didn’t milk any vocal trumps – no held pianissimos like Caballé or swelling rich legatos like Tebaldi. Everything was directly and honestly sung with total success and no mannerisms. But her personal take on the music hasn’t emerged yet. The role is new to her this year and that will come.

As an actress, Racette has intelligence, industry, energy and sufficient temperament. Her diva was a little lacking in personal charm, the Act I love duet had little romantic chemistry between the handsome tenor and soprano. However, Racette is in control and has worked out every moment. Take the moment where Tosca spies the portrait of the Attavanti as the Magdalen – “Chi é quella donna bionda lassu?”. Mattila in the Fall run at this moment was already crossing downstage with her back to the portrait and then had to do an unmotivated turn to see the canvas behind her. Racette returned to the chairs where she and Kaufmann had sung the preceding love duet to pick up her veil, leaning down and rising to pick up the veil her gaze is naturally directed at the canvas and the moment develops organically.

Racette was able to change some but sadly not all of the staging. In Act II, she did not take the knife during “Vissi d’arte” but discovered it during the “Qual via sciegliete” dialogue, the usual place. She killed Scarpia with two thrusts, neither in the groin. The reappearance of Attavanti’s fan in Scarpia’s chamber in Act II was eliminated and Racette ended Act II seated crumpled on the sofa exhausted and spent. Mattila as you remember stretched herself out prone on the sofa fanning herself with Attavanti’s fan. No cross and candles were in sight at the end of Act II as before.

I was hoping Racette would insert a running exit during the last bars with the drumroll signaling Cavaradossi’s impending execution but clearly the Bondy blueprint could only be revised so much. The costumes designed by Milena Canonero for Mattila have tailored bodices and long lines that pull in Racette’s short busty figure giving her height and chic. Even the curly dark wig looks more becoming on her.

Properly dominant, Terfel’s Scarpia ruled every moment with powerful, glowering stage presence and vocal force. I knew Bondy’s crude vulgarian interpretation of Scarpia would be within Terfel’s range having seen his bullyboy Don Giovanni. However, Terfel never allowed any of the sleazy antics to demean the character or make him lose authority – this Scarpia could paw a prostitute one moment and then toss her aside the next never losing his sense of power and control. Terfel did not maul the effigy of the Virgin Mary at the climax of the Act I “Te Deum” but seemed to confront it contemptuously at first and then guiltily prostrated himself to his knees before it. The moment made sense and created a conflicted character.

He did cavort lustily with the whores in Act II but eschewed the simulated fellatio. Terfel also did not sniff Tosca’s hair nor did he crawl on the floor on all fours but always kept a dominant posture, never becoming gross or ridiculous. The interrogation of Tosca in Act II was moved away from the La-Z-Boy recliner which no longer rocked distractingly during the attempted rape. Terfel also added his own mocking hand clapping after the ovation following “Vissi D’Arte” diminishing Tosca’s cry of personal distress as mere diva posturing. Terfel has a dark, brutal side to his stage persona and a sexual energy which Scarpia tapped into excitingly. The voice was thrillingly secure, broad, warm and ringing with a lot of thrust on top – the role is lowish for baritones but high for a bass-baritone. Terfel was totally secure throughout the range and has a top quality instrument. Definitely a star turn by a genuine star.

The final scene is still a mess – Racette ran quickly up the stairs to the landing and I was hoping would just run behind the columns without taunting the Sciarrone and Spoletta who suddenly had to go into slow motion for no reason. However, Racette did stop, sang “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” with a secure B flat and made some beckoning gestures. However, once again the lighting cue botched the final tableau – Racette ran into the opening in the parapet and just before the double could appear out of the window the lights were switched off. No jump, no ending to the story. There were some boos from the balcony but loud cheering for the singers and conductor – especially loud ovations for Terfel and Kaufmann.

Despite the lack of rehearsal, Luisi kept firm control over the orchestra (one mash-up in the horns in Act I passed quickly) and worked successfully with singers he had not worked with previously. The Bondy production is still stylistically all over the place – Act II looks nothing like the acts preceding or following but the shock effects and stupidity have been diffused. What is left is an empty rather dull unattractive production which needs strong voices and personalities to fill the void. This is what the production got last night.